Alabama’s Lacy leads weak group of RBs

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth part of a series previewing the NFL draft by position.

The Browns took a fair share of criticism last year for trading up one spot for the chance to select Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the third overall draft pick.

That decision doesn’t look as shaky when gauging this year’s group of running back prospects. There aren’t many jewels among them. The best of the bunch might be Eddie Lacy, another in a line of standouts produced by Alabama coach Nick Saban.

It all leads to the never-ending debate concerning the appropriate time to draft running backs. The prevailing theory is to never to select one high, unless it’s for a unique talent, and instead wait until later rounds.

Former Browns general manager Tom Heckert obviously considered Richardson a unique talent. Unfortunately, for the Browns, Richardson cracked a couple of ribs in a week two game against the Bengals and had to deal with pain the rest of the season.

Now fully healed, Richardson will surely be the focal point of offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense. Ideally, Richardson stays healthy and vastly improves upon his 950-yard total of last season, removing pressure from the shoulders of quarterback Brandon Weeden.

The team that selects the 5-11, 231-pound Lacy will be getting a player similar to Richardson, which means a low center of gravity and plenty of power. Finally getting a chance to start with Mark Ingram and Richardson gone, Lacy rushed for 1,322 yards and scored 17 touchdowns on 204 carries last season. Lacy split time with freshman standout T.J. Yeldon.

Lacy took advantage of the nation’s best offensive line, showing strength and an ability to spin off tacklers. Lacy lacks great outside speed (4.55). He caught 22 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.

Lacy’s stock might have slipped when he didn’t work out at the combine because of knee and pectoral injuries. Beyond durability concerns, Lacy has to show that his production wasn’t simply because of the line in front of him.

“It all depends on how you look at it,” he said. “I feel as though we complement each other because you have a great offensive line and you have a great backfield as well, so I don’t feel as if one position is doing good because of the other.”

Another big producer last season was Montee Ball of Wisconsin. Ball (5-11, 214) won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back, piling up 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns on 356 carries.

Ball doesn’t have great speed, but his instincts are above average. He holds up well and should develop into a workhorse-type back. Ball didn’t add much to the passing game, catching just 10 passes for 72 yards.

Ball could slip into the second round, but he understandably thinks he’s a first-round talent.

gI know that I can help a team win,” he said. “That’s what I truly believe. My film shows that.”

Johnathan Franklin set the UCLA single-season rushing record last season with 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns on 232 carries. Franklin (5-10, 205) has good speed and the ability to make people miss, but he had just 25 career receptions.

Ball security has to be a concern for scouts. Franklin had 22 fumbles on 846 career touches. He fumbled three times during a five-game stretch last year.

Lonnie Pryor of Florida State could be the first fullback selected. Pryor (6-0, 227) took on more of a role as a runner last season, gaining 376 yards and scoring eight touchdowns on 47 carries. He’s not a strong lead blocker, which will drop his draft stock to the later rounds.